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Havana tattoo artists strive for higher standards

By Katarina Delgado, Havana, Cuba, 2018

Walking down Empedrado street in Havana, Cuba you would never notice Luna tattoo unless you took a peek inside their doorway and spotted the stairs. The brightly painted staircase leading up to the parlor says tattoo in several languages, catering to any passerby curious enough to come up. Yunior Lorente Luna and Bailey Smith Ramírez Madrigal opened the parlor 3 years ago. It is one of only 3 in Havana with sterile conditions, the rest are in living rooms and next to streets.

“A tattoo parlor needs the same rigor as an operation room or emergency room,” Luna said. “A tattoo parlor in your house is never going to be at 100 percent, you can’t sterilize.”

Luna and Madrigal say they do everything they can to make their parlor sterile, buying the same products as artists in other countries but not in the same ways.

“Here you can’t get materials anywhere,” Madrigal said. “The only way to buy gloves is to import them or have a friend in a medical center that can get them for you or give them to you.”

Sometimes, he says, they buy online or have friends bring materials in by the suitcase. If their friends fall through, they have to resort to the black market for materials.

“Not having a market here or a store where we can buy tattoo products or sterilization products makes it a little difficult,” Madrigal said.

But despite the conditions, Madrigal says that talented Cuban tattoo artists are around.

“There are sleeping talents,” Madrigal said. “There are people with a lot of talent but who don’t have the resources to have their own studio. So they’re not famous, they’re not known.”

The partners are working alongside other artists and lawyers to make their trade official and allow for an international tattoo convention next year. They hope that would bring recognition as well as education, to Cuban tattoo artists.

“In 5 years what I’d like to see is that the level of tattooing in Cuba is as good as the rest of the world. And it is, but it’s not recognized,” Madrigal said.

Interviews were conducted in Spanish and translated into English.

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“Por la izquierda:” Cuba’s black market is all-pervasive, vital

By Mike Adams, Havana, Cuba, 2018

Before the revolution, retired Havana construction worker Erraldo Dile was earning 10 pesos a day on the job. After the Batista dictatorship fell in 1959, he found his government employment sporadic and his government rations scarce.

“I’d work for a few years and then I wouldn’t have any work for a few years,” Dile, now 73, said. “Even during the best times I only made seven pesos a day…The rations aren’t sufficient, they have never been sufficient. You can’t live like that.”


Erraldo Dile, 73, a retired Havana construction worker.

Every Cuban citizen is guaranteed a ration of essential supplies by the government. The state provides each person with around 15 days’ worth of calories a month in rice, beans, meat, sugar, coffee, salt and cooking oil. But when government rations fall short, Cubans like Dile must turn to the black market to make ends meet.

This system of quasi-legal exchange is all pervasive on the island. Nearly every Cuban, regardless of job or social standing, must act outside government-approved means—conducting business “por la izquierda,” as Cubans say—in some way, whether for their own survival or to circumvent restrictions.

“The issue here in that the Cuban market is not enough, and it doesn’t have all that we need,” Camilo Garcia Lopez-Trigo, a former Cuban diplomat and political science professor in Havana, said. “Nowadays the only enterprises with the legal ability to import things are state-owned enterprises, and the state-owned enterprises are not bringing everything that is needed in the country.”

Garcia, an academic and former high-ranking government official, must regularly sell some of his government-allotted rice to his relatives to get what he needs.

“I don’t eat much rice, so I sell it or I give it to my brother and my sister,” Garcia said. “It’s part of the survival of the Cubans. We would like to have a better economy, we would like to have a market which could fill all the requirements, but at the end we have to go to the black market.”

A Cuban family on a balcony in the Plaza del Santo Cristo in Havana.

Cuban world-record holding hurdler Dayron Robles recently opened a casa particular, a privately-owned hotel run out of his house in Havana, to supplement his government salary. The athlete turned businessman does not believe he could ever properly cater to his clients through legal means, and admitted his kitchen was partially furnished through illegal private commercial importation.

“My first intention is to try to get everything from the government, but that’s impossible,” Robles said. “I have to find alternatives. Sometimes I travel and get what I need. We have a fridge I bought from the Dominican Republic, in government markets it would be 3,000 or 4,000 CUCs [the Cuban Convertible Peso, which equals 0.87 US Dollars].”

The black market even affects the way people consume media. Cubans increasingly get their television and movies through “packages,” bundles of bootlegged broadcast media sold between locals and shared through pen-drives with storage capacities of up a Terabite.

Cristina Escobar, Cuba’s most well-known television journalist, said weekly packages have become her main competitor.

“Weekly packages are in every neighborhood, and everyone knows the guy who is the dealer of the package,” Escobar said. “You can see Modern Family, Speechless, House of Cards, Grey’s Anatomy…all of those things. It is very comfortable to, at 8pm, when before all you could watch was the news, you plug in your hard-drive or USB and you watch whatever you want.”

While the government might oppose the black market on paper, Escobar said anti-black market laws are rarely enforced. The market, she argues, solves problems the government cannot solve, like keeping Havana’s taxi fleet properly fueled.

“How do you move 250,000 people, as these cars do, every morning?” Escobar said. “Public transportation can’t do that, and it solves a huge problem for Cubans. In a lot of ways, the black market is a solution, or is a consequence of the lack of a solution in the state. Even if publicly, the state says they can solve that, they can’t solve that.”

Cuba’s market problems affect far more than its supply of goods, Freelance journalist Jon Alpert, director of Netflix feature “Cuba and the Cameraman,” said. Alpert has famously documented the lives of ordinary Cubans since the 1970s. The kind of mentality the average person has to adopt in the situation, Alpert said, directly undermines the values the Cuban Revolution has attempted to instill in the populace.

“It’s unfortunate that this is what people have to do in order to survive,” Alpert said. “And when you start thinking selfishly, and when you start putting the collective good of the people in second place, third place or fourth place because you have to help your family survive, for want of a better word it eats away at the type of solidarity you need in order to make a difficult revolution survive.”

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Santería: an old religion in the new Cuba

By Katarina Delgado, Havana, Cuba, 2018

The yearly letter released this on January 2 by the Yoruba Cultural Association of Cuba stated that “Everyone is worthy of respect.” But some practitioners of Santería, derived from Yoruba, say their religion is not always respected, or understood.

An estimated 70 percent of Cubans practice some form of Santería, an Afro-Caribbean religion derived based in natural elements, according to the U.S. Department of State.

“People see Santería as something negative or like witchcraft but it’s not like that because Santeria is a religion practiced for the good, not to do harm to anyone,” Israel Bravo-Vega, a Cuban Babalawo or Santeria priest, said. Babalawo (also spelled Babalao, means “father of the mysteries’ in the Yoruba language originated in West Africa).

Israel Bravo-Vega smoking a cigar in el Templo de Yemaya in Trinidad, Cuba.

Vega works at el Templo de Yemaya in Trinidad, Cuba where tourists are welcomed to walk in and learn about Santería’s traditions and origins.

“Santería came from Nigeria and mixed with Catholicism and continues surviving until today,” Vega said. “It’s a religion practiced in Cuba, a religion from black people.”

The traditions and practices still used today in Santería were inherited from slaves, though mixed with other religions, Elias Aseff, a Cuban scholar, said. The first records of slaves in Cuba go back to as early as 1513. Slaves were brought to Cuba to farm the coffee and sugarcane crops. Over three centuries of slave trading, an estimated 600,000 slaves were brought to Cuba from Western Africa. Along with labor, they brought the Yoruba religion which Santeria draws from along with Catholicism.

Different tools are used in rituals. The tool pictured above is used before beginning a ritual in order to cleanse.

“Because this religion came from Africa. And we always have a stigma, a taboo about religions from black people because black people were segregated and they were regarded as evil,” Aseff said. “If African people were the colonizers of the western, it would be the other way around and maybe witchcraft would be the Christianism.”

The main way Santería, or “the way of the saints,” draws from Christianity is through the Saints. Different Yoruba spirits, known as Orishas, are represented as Christian Saints. Our Lady of Charity represents the Yoruba Goddess of the River, Ochún. Saint Lazarus, a very popular saint in the religion, is representative of Babalú-Ayé who is called upon for the sick. Because of this mixture with the Catholic religion, Manuel Cruz, a Catholic priest in Cuba, is skeptical about Santeria.

“As a Catholic, logically, I don’t agree with many of the things they do,” Cruz said. “They mix is with Catholicism so it’s taken from here, from there.”

But, Cruz says, he doesn’t have an issue with the Santeros and that there is a mutual respect.

“We respect everyone’s religion,” Delia Peniche, a believer of Santería who works as a

librarian in el Museo de los Orishas, said. “I don’t say because you’re catholic I can’t speak to you, I’ll speak to you normally. I respect your religion.”

Santeria combines elements of Christianity and the African Yoruba religion.

Because the Orishas are represented in Saints, Cruz encounters Santeros in his church.

“They come here sometimes to pray,” Cruz said. “They come in tranquility, I have a relationship with them.They are good people, nice people. There are certainly people who do harm, who do bad things, but I don’t know them.”

The close ties between the two religions bring them close together in Cuba. Sometimes, too close for Cruz’s comfort.

“They throw sacrificed chickens, food. For them it’s a way to express their sacrifice, leaving it in a catholic temple but they don’t notice that they are dirtying everything,” Cruz said.

Sacrifices are among the traditional methods of the Santería practice. Chickens, doves, goats and other animals are used in rituals to please the Orishas.

“They’re sacrifices we do to the saints to better our lives, to be able to save ourselves. In the end, that’s the function of an animal, they’re going to kill it one way or another,” Gustavo Diaz Claro, Babalawo and president of the Yoruba Cultural Association of Cuba, said.

While many people think animal sacrifice is a unnecessary everyday occurrence in the Santería tradition, Michel Arena, a young Cuban Babalawo, says that’s not the case.

“Sacrifices aren’t indiscriminate. It’s not like we’re going to do a sacrifice because someone is going on a trip or someone wants a position, like people think,” Arena said. “We sacrifice when it’s necessary and when the saint asks for it. We don’t do it every day. Sometimes people are simply told to light two candles and beg the saint and the person is resolved.”

Arena says another common practice includes bathing in fresh water with white flowers in order to cleanse.

Common practices include lighting candles and offering food to the Orishas.

“This religion is a weapon to face problems,” Aseff said. “This is not an ideology like in Christianism that if you do good things, if you have good behavior you will receive the blessing of the god and you will have a better life after death. We don’t promise that. We try to solve problems now because you are facing your problem every day.”

Santeros use different elements including herbs, water or fruits depending on the issue the person is having. For example, one might be told to bathe in fresh water with honey to sweeten a relationship.

“Sometimes people think that with doing the biggest things it’ll get better but no,” Claro said. “With the simplest things you can solve it.”

Some believers choose to solve their issues without ever resorting to animal sacrifices.

“I don’t understand why I would need to give a saint blood for something. I don’t agree with that,” Diana Cabrera Echeverria, a civil engineer and shop owner in Cuba, said. “I have my saint, I pray, I give fruit, candy, I light a candle and that’s where stop.”

Echeverria says that despite popular beliefs about the religion, she’s not an outlier.

“The majority of Cubans are like that. They light candles, they dress up in colors on the day of their saints but they don’t get to the point of sacrifice,” Echeverria said. “I think if you’re getting to that point it’s something diabolical.”

But while the religion is common practice in Cuba, Jorge Guzman, a Babalawo living in Miami, Florida, says his religion is still not fully understood.

“Ignorance is nothing more than being full of incorrect information and not opening yourself to new information,” Guzman said. “There’s a lot of ignorance regarding what the base of the religion is.”

Interviews were conducted in Spanish and translated into English, with the exception of Elias Aseff.

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“El que sigue:” Cuba’s next generation faces a nation in flux

By Mike Adams, Havana, Cuba, January 2018

Cuban President Raul Castro is set to step down from office in April. In just a few months, the country will have its first head of state from outside the Castro family since military dictator Fulgencio Batista was ousted from power in 1959.

The nation’s next president will be elected by the 612 members of the National Assembly, Cuba’s main legislative body, after parliamentary elections are held on April 19. First Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel is widely seen as Castro’s successor, but any Cuban citizen over 18 years old can run for the position.

Cuba’s next leader will inherit the daunting task of navigating through a pivotal period in the nation’s history without the authority of the Castro name. For Cuban diplomat Camilo Garcia-Lopez Trigo, uncertainty is the only guarantee for the future.

“The most important decisions made today in Cuba are in the hands of the new generation of Cubans,” Garcia-Lopez Trigo said. “You don’t see one that is going to be the next leader, who is going to replace Raul Castro.”


El Capitolo: Cuba’s capitol building and the seat of the National Assembly in Havana.

The diplomat believes that Cuban politics will change dramatically as the revolutionary guard passes the torch to the next generation.

“Not having anyone in the leadership from the generation who made the revolution is going to create a completely different perspective on the relationship between the constituency and the leadership,” Garcia said. “It’s not the same when you have the people who made the revolution as your president as it is having a regular citizen.”

Cuba’s political and economic fate have been tied to its relations with the United States ever since President John F. Kennedy issued an embargo on all American trade with Cuba in 1962. The nation has withstood over 50 years isolated from the largest economic force in the world, and while relations began to normalize under former US President Barack Obama, current President Donald Trump has tightened restrictions since he took office.

Opinions of Trump vary on the island. Jonathan Ruvira Perez, a sales representative at Clandestina, a famous Havana clothing store that makes its products in the US, believes President Trump is directly impeding Cuba’s advancement.

“I think that what we really need right now is for Trump to go away,” Ruvira said. “All the progress that Obama made, Trump is taking back. All these guys in the government in Cuba have the same ideals, but if there’s someone in the states willing to work with them to make change, I think we may have a future like we expected with Obama.”

A European-made gas truck on a side street in Havana, Cuba.

Despite popular opposition to the blockade, Cuban journalist Cristina Escobar worries the nation will be unable to handle the shock of its eventual repeal.

“We don’t know how to live without the embargo, our economy is not ready for that,” Escobar said. “We don’tknow how to deal normally with the world.”

Escobar is also concerned that US business interests will hold sway over Cuban affairs like they did during the Batista government.

“They use the word ‘normalization,’ normal relations with the US,” Escobar said. “And I wonder, is it possible to have normal relations with the US? Was it normal before 1959? I’m afraid that the only possibilities are none or everything, no relations or Puerto Rico 2.0.”

Safi Quinteros Navarro, a housewife and mother of two living in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood, hopes a changing Cuban economy will help people like her children make a better living in the future.

“I’d like to see that the salary that people get matches their work and the general prices,” Quinteros said. “That’s the main change I’d like to see in this country.”

While many Cuban people desire a more capitalistic economy, Canadian author Hal Klepak, a military history professor and expert on Cuba, believes the Cuban government is wary of rapid change. Even the small pushes towards capitalistic reform the government has made, Klepak argues, have ultimately been opposed by the Cuban people.

“Everybody has lunch, at their work if they work for the state,” Klepak. “So, of course they say ‘we’ll raise the salaries a little’ and they charge for that. Food prices worldwide are not what they were, so what you’re making in exchange for giving up your lunch is half of it. So while people support the move towards greater capitalism, not when it affects them.”

While experts inside and outside of Cuba doubt the youth’s willingness to stand for Fidelista values, at least one young Cuban said his generation’s commitment should not be underestimated.

“Yes, they believe,” Jorge David, a 14-year-old student from Vedado, said. “Because there are multiple achievements from the revolution. Medicine, free education, everything. That’s good! We are expecting a positive change.”

Interviews were conducted in Spanish and later translated.

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A private design brand blooms in Cuba

By Jill Ryan, Havana, Cuba, January 2018

A small shop right at the corner of Plaza del Santo Cristo in Havana, Cuba, is growing a big name for itself in the U.S. and around the world, despite the decades-long Embargo weighing on the island.

Founded in 2015 by Leire Fernandez and Cuban designer Idania del Río, Clandestina is a privately owned business that sells t-shirts, stickers, posters, amongst other recycled commodities, right from del Río’s house. The store also gives other Cuban designers a platform to share their art and ideas.

“I know a lot of designers that leave Cuba to grow themselves,” a Clandestina salesman, Jonathan Ruvira Perez, said. “We’re trying to give them an alternative, so they don’t have to leave their roots, their families and they can make a living here.”

The rise of the private sector, that made Clandestina possible, is a relatively new phenomenon in Cuba. Before, the only way to work in Cuba was to work for the State. But the private sector has even convinced some Cubans to come back after leaving.

“I think the emergence of this private sector has convinced a certain number of Cubans to remain in Cuba that would have otherwise definitely left.” Gregory Biniowsky, a Canadian attorney who has lived in Cuba for over 20 years, said. “And it’s going to convince a growing number of Cubans that didn’t leave for political reasons to come back.”

Unlike other private businesses in Cuba, Clandestina was able to create a U.S. website, which in turn helped it cement its brand, Clandestina salesman, Óscar Valdés Martínez, said. Brands in Cuba (Cohiba, Havana Club, Montecristo) were usually run by the government.

“We are going to try to grow Clandestina in the U.S. through e-commerce because here, growth is not the same as the U.S. where people open a store and then another one and then maybe another one. So our growth strategy must be outside Cuba,” del Río said.

To get around the Embargo, the designs purchased on the website are created in Cuba and are printed in the U.S. by their supplier. The profits then go to expanding the brand outside Cuba and paying the private Cuban designers.

U.S. banks are still reluctant to do business with Cubans for fear of changes to the regulations and/or hefty fines.” Jono Matusky, who promotes technology and design in Cuba, said.

Right now, until a bank account is opened, Clandestina is working with Niche LLC.

Since I am from Spain there’s not a real issue on opening the bank account,” Fernandez said.  

The U.S. website is their global window, which lets people from the U.S. to Singapore and even Australia buy Clandestina’s products, del Río said.

“Seven or six years ago, Raúl Castro was changing some laws about self-employment,” del Río remembered. “Me and my partner, we applied for any license that we could and back then it was something between independent artist and ‘cuenta propista’ or private owner.”

While the website’s profits are furthering the brand of Clandestina, it cannot come back to the physical shop in Havana.

“No profit come to Cuba. This is Embargo,” Fernandez said.

The Embargo was placed on Cuba by the U.S. during the John F. Kennedy era to pressure Cuba into becoming a democracy. However, while the Embargo was set to pressure the Cuban government, it is hurting private Cubans, which are now suffering more after President Donald Trump’s decision to tighten the restrictions.

“The Embargo affects all the economy in Cuba and the private sector is inserted into that system,” Cristina Escobar, a host of a Cuban talk show ‘Once A Week,” said. “It’s interesting Marco Rubio and the President, both said that the idea of the travel ban and the Embargo was to encourage the private sector but the measure does exactly the opposite.”

Cuba’s private sector, for instance, cannot take American credit cards, and sometimes no credit cards at all.

“The Embargo affects the fact that Cuba can’t use dollars, that Cuba can’t do international transactions.” Escobar said. “Banks fine us because we are a risky country, because we can’t be a part of an international mechanism of credit, because of the U.S. Embargo.”

In Cuba, there are two currencies, the one used by tourists: the Convertible Peso or the CUC, which is equal to one dollar, and the Cuban Peso which is worth much less. By catering to tourism, private businesses like Clandestina can operate in CUC.

“Many private businesses can earn the CUC but the rest of the people work with the State,” Lola Perez, a saleswoman of a private butterfly shop, said. “The average salary here is 225 pesos cubanos a month, when you convert that in CUC it’s 11 CUC.”

Clandestina hopes that with the combination of the website and its location near the tourist section of Havana, it can become as popular as other Cuban commodities.

“This place is unique to other design places,” Martínez, said. “We want to replace the classic cuban souvenirs: rum and tobacco.”

An artist carves the lives of Cubans

By Yingzi Dong, Havana, Cuba, 2018

He sat just behind the door, the light was white and the sunshine warm. There was a picture of an old man lying on a wooden table. Lazaro Niebla is carving its shape into a recycled wooden panel.

Niebla, 43, was born in Cienfuegos but came to Trinidad to study art. He has three daughters, a wife and an art gallery in one of the oldest cities on the Island. With his bas-reliefs he tries to keep a record of Cuban life in the countryside, while helping some of his friends in need.

“I do the pictures as spontaneous as possible and create a relation with them; I’m trying to make them as natural possible,” Niebla said.

Before Niebla opened his gallery, he was a sculpting teacher in Trinidad. Supply shortages made it hard to access materials during the special period, after the USSR dissolved and its economic support to the island vanished. Niebla had to save money for over ten years by selling ceramics to be able to buy his own place.

“When I left school, it was a romantic period, everyone had that spirit about art and making thing that were beautiful without thinking of the market,” Niebla said. “I tried to keep that spirit during the 90’s when there was not tourism.”

However, “there is no arts market in Cuba,” Niebla said. In order to make money for his family, Niebla had to start selling his works to the tourists. “Now I commercialize my work, but I try to be as sincere as possible.”

Three years ago, Mariesa Sun-Saenz, the member of the US Cuba artists exchange organization and now the Niebla’s manager decided to offer some help. She started to sell Niebla’s art and hold exhibitions in the United States.

“He is humble, very thoughtful, quiet observant, very interested to giving back to the community, and helping other people,” Sun-Saenz said. “An good example of essentially becoming almost like a middle-class Cuban and not forgetting where they came from.”

Lazaro Niebla’s works range from $1200-$15000. At that price point, he is able to keep doing his works while helping his family and some friends get by. His next exhibition will be in July in Los Angeles.

 

Cuban artist turned his home into an art studio business

By Luis Sanchez, Havana, Cuba, January 2018

In Trinidad, Cuba artist Yonelquis Rodriguez paints in a studio with one window and little light. His home is build in cobblestone, has no electricity, and is always closed after dark.

His artwork hangs around , because he has turned his craft into a small business. Contrary to many Cuban artists, he does not enjoy painting political figures, Rodriguez said.

“It’s not my thing, I do it because tourists like it and my preferred art is preserving Trinidad’s culture,” Rodriguez said.

He favors painting antiques, cobblestones areas, and famous singers known to Trinidad, but he rarely successfully sells them.

“Tourists enjoy buying paintings relating to Fidel and Che, because of their political impact,” Rodriguez said.

Art has been an interesting career for him, he said, although it’s tough to make a living, but he loves it.

“Let art live,” Rodriguez said.

China brings its culture to Cuba in next month book fair

By Rongyi Zhang, in Havana, Cuba, January 2018

The 27th annual Cuba International Book Fair will take place at Morro Cabana park in eastern Havana. The main event will last for ten days starting on February 1st in Havana, and then move to other parts of the country until May.

Havana’s book fair started in 1982 with Fidel Castro’s direct support. Its purpose was to bring culture into the island. It took place every two years until 2000. Since then, the event has been scheduled annually.

This year’s guest country of honor, China, will bring its culture to Cuba. Fei Yao, the political counselor in the Chinese Embassy, said at a press conference in December of last year that the Chinese Minister of Culture and publishers are preparing for this event. The Confucius Institute of Havana University is organizing the event in cooperation with Cuba’s domestic book institutions.

“We are very busy in these days to get this done,” Wei Zhang, Dean of the Confucius Institute in Havana, said. “We cooperate with local publishers such as the Cuban Book Institute and the National Book Chamber to prepare for the most popular cultural event in this country each year. We provide volunteers and technical support to the fair. Although we are not official sponsors, the Confucius Institute plays an important role in organizing this event. Also, our institute will have its own booth.”

China started attending the event in 2013, but this is the first time that the Asian country will be the honored guest. Yao said that the Chinese government will send a large delegation which will include experts in Chinese culture and writers. The delegates will participate in various activities including presenting Chinese books and round tables with Cuban writers.

“The Chinese government values the event very much,” Zhang said. “There are many countries from all over the world attending this event, so the Chinese government thought it as a good opportunity to display aspects of the Chinese culture and traditions to the world. The government had sent cultural exchanging groups in the past few years. This year, we have a high-level artistic group, a delegation of different Chinese publishers, and a group of famous modern writers.”

One of the highlights of the 2018 book fair is that the event will have different activities in 22 locations in Havana, including book stores and publishing houses. There are a total of 133 expositors registered from 31 countries, according to Granma, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist party in Cuba.

The international book fair is one of the greatest cultural events in Cuba now, and the 2018 event is expected to attract over 100,000 readers, Zhang said.

The decline of China’s exports affects small business and people in Cuba

By Yingzi Dong, Havana, Cuba, 2018

Near the end of Calle Cuchillo in Havana’s Chinatown neighborhood, Tientan restaurant has stayed open for over 20 years. In all those years, however, the shortage of soy sauce has never gone away.

“If we see any soy sauces in the market, we buy them all,” Mr. Luo, Tientan’s chef, said. “The shipping containers only come to the harbor eight months a year. If we are out of soy sauce, we are out of soy sauce.”

China’s exports to Cuba declined from $1.9 billion in 2015 to $1.8 billion in 2016 as a result of Cuba’s payment problem. After Hurricane Irma, The Cuban government has been unable to meet its due payments to China, because it rerouted some of the money to reconstruction efforts. As Cuba’s largest trading partner, China sends food, transportation equipment and more to the island every year.  But the decline in trade is affecting small businesses and regular people, Juan Triana, a prominent Cuban economist, said.

“The lack of supplies usually depends on the prices and regular people are facing the rising of prices,” Triana said.

Every year, Cuba receives more than 80% of its imports from China, Spain, Brazil and Vietnam. Most goods and transportation are marked as made in China. Many of these goods, however, come in suitcases.

“I would ask my family to bring me toilet papers every time they come to Cuba because it is very hard to get it,” Wei Zhang, the dean of the Confucius Department in Havana University, said. “In Cuba, demand normally exceeds supply, and the more you buy, the more money you pay. You might get a better price for buying a pack of beer in China or the United States, but you have to pay more money for a pack here.”

China should have helped Cuba as the “socialist brother,” but it ended up cutting Cuba off because Cuba cannot buy as much as before, Gregory Biniowsky, a business owner and the only foreign lawyer authorized to work in Cuba, said.

“If you talk to a businessman, Cubans always pay their debts but they always pay late,” Biniowsky said. “But a lot of exporters and investors have been frustrated because Cuba delays payments.”

Biniowsky also sees a silver lining: “The decrease of exports is definitely enforcing Cuba to develop internal manufacturing and food production.”

For last 15 years, mainly the last six or seven years, the Cuban government has been encouraging local production. But this push not only depends on the political will of Cuban government, Triana said, it also depends on the availability of hard currency.

“For example, from China we import a lot of food, transportation, equipment and the heavy machinery, and we cannot produce that because Cuba does not have the technology to produce that,” Triana said. “[The decline in imports] has a relationship with the growth of the domestic products, but not always.”

“Cuba’s industry is in poor condition,” Cristina Escobar, a Cuban TV journalist, said. “It is naive to think about developing internal manufacturing because we are a poor country.”

Even though China’s imports have decreased, Triana thinks that this will not affect the commercial relations of these countries in the long run.

Cuba deals with the legacy of “pies secos, pies mojados”

By Luis Sanchez, Havana, Cuba, January 2018

Lassara Sanchez, a 53-year-old baker in Havana, has a brother living in Florida as a “pies secos, pies mojados” recipient. Sanchez is one of thousands of Cubans with mix feelings regarding the policy.

“I see why a lot of Cubans would leave because of economic problems, but many people died,” Sanchez said. “I don’t like that my brother is far away, but what can we do?”

“Pies secos, pies mojados,” in English “wet foot dry foot,” was an immigration policy started by the Clinton administration in 1995 that gave Cuban exiles political refugee status if they could make it to American soil. Around 30,000 Cubans migrated to the United States every year under the policy before President Obama terminated it during his last days in office as a token of goodwill to the Cuban government.

“It’s sad that the Obama administration terminated this policy, because now we can’t get rid of the people who are not part Fidel’s revolution,” Sanchez said.

The policy has created family divisions between Cubans in exile in Miami and those in the island.

“This policy has unfortunately taken many lives, and has separated me from my daughter,” Martinez-Ramirez, a 55-year-old taxi driver with a step daughter in Florida, said. “She left the regime and comes once in a while, but not as often as I would like.”

Many Cubans on the island say that the policy is good for those who are not part of the revolution, because they can exile with little consequences.

“If you’re not part of the revolution you can leave, but as Cubans. You can return anytime,” Sanchez said.

Some in the island saw the change of policy as unfortunate but worthwhile and necessary.

“This affected Cubans because if you see, if I would have left then I would have had the same benefits,” Reynaldo Estrada, a 44-year-old waiter said. “But when you start thinking, a lot of lives were saved because a lot of lives were lost between Cuba and Florida.”

Estrada said that he would only ever leave Cuba for economic reasons. Pies secos, pies mojados recipients automatically received residency status in the United States. They also received food stamps, job training and an education.

The special status given to Cuban exiles in the US became a source of resentment for some of the Cubans who remained on the island.

“The Miami Cuban community are an old group of privileged individuals,” Cristina Escobar a 33-year-old journalist and Cuban TV star in charge of the morning news, said.

Escobar also said that she was pleased to see the end of “pies secos, pies mojados”, primarily because of all the lives being saved. She also saw it is only fair to other immigrants.

“That’s good because now you’re going to be the same as any other immigrant, because then you’re going to suffer in your own skin what it is to be a dreamer, what is to have a child in the U.S and living the risk of being deported and leaving them behind,” Escobar said. “ Cubans never had that problem. A lot of them belonged to a bourgeoisie in Cuba and they still feel important.”

Other Cubans on the island also believe that some were taking advantage of pies secos, pies mojados.

“I believe that it was the best thing that could of happen because of the deaths and because Cubans were taking advantage of it,” Jesus Enriquez a 59-year-old a taxi driver with a daughter in Miami, said.  “The government is good here.”

There are some who say this immigration policy has been used as a political retaliation against the Cuban regime to try and bring them down.

“The logic is political points,” Gregory Biniowsky, a lawyer and owner of a Russian private restaurant in Havana, said. “What makes Cuba looks worse, a bunch of Cubans going and legally getting their visas and getting on a plane and flying to Miami, or a bunch of Cubans getting on boats and hoping to get on land and get benefits? The whole rafter thing makes Cuba look like a really bad place to be, and the United States government preferred Cubans getting on boats and getting on the news then quietly on planes.”